CHESTER HAS MOVED!: The Story Behind the Story: The Crash of the USS San Francisco

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Story Behind the Story: The Crash of the USS San Francisco

Back in December, The Adventures of Chester criticized several US Senators and the New York Times for outing the government's plans to build and launch a new series of spy satellites:
Today, the New York Times has outed the program as a spy satellite, meant to add to the existing capabilities of two others launched in the 1990s, under the program name "Misty." The Times then goes on to offer one hundred reasons, via various Democratic observers, why the new satellite is a bad idea.
This is what The Adventures of Chester had to say:
I ask you: is this a useless capability? Only if we believe our enemies are non-state actors hiding in caves, or North Korea, building nukes in underground caverns. Doesn't it seem that of all the various types of imaging and imagery our satellites are capable of producing, that high-resolution photographs are among the most basic and fundamental? Doesn't it seem that it might actually be quite useful to have high-resolution photographs of a particular piece of terrain. The natural contours and makeup of an expected battlefield can be reconnoitered over a long period of time -- say several weeks -- and can be just as useful if gathered at day as at night. I know this for certain -- I have been the recipient myself of such intelligence products. Moreover, a great deal of information can be gleaned, inferred, and deduced from careful examination of such images. The US employs entire legions of experts with PhDs in imagery, topography, geology, etc etc etc to analyze such images. Their collective salaries are miniscule compared to the loss of one American life due to an unprepared battlespace. Moreover, these images are often used to create military maps, which is a fundamental, yet not very sexy part of any successful military operation. And maps have a half-life. Roads can be moved, new buildings put up, bridges added, marshes destroyed, fields burned, forests -- deforested. Having the ability to create an imagery update to an existing map can change entire battle plans. And this update can happen over the course of several weeks before the battle -- when weather will allow, if that is truly a concern.
Well today, we learn that the lack of satellite-based intelligence gathering is one of the principal causes for the recent death of one US sailor. The New York Times reports, Submarine Crash Shows Navy Had Gaps in Mapping System:
But the older navigation charts provided to the Navy were never updated to show the obstruction, they acknowledge, in part because the agency that creates them has never had the resources to use the satellite data systematically.
Now the Times does its best to show that the reason the charts weren't updated is poor human decision-making, not a lack of technical information available:
The officials said the main chart on the submarine, prepared in 1989 and never revised, did not show any potential obstacles within three miles of the crash. They said the incident happened in such a desolate area - 360 miles southeast of Guam - that updating their depiction of the undersea terrain was never considered a priority.
Why might it not be a priority? Perhaps because our satellite-based mapping capabilities are so short that the government is forced to prioritize on other tasks. If that's true, then the New York Times should republish its December article criticizing new satellites right alongside this one. More:
Chris Andreasen, the chief hydrographer for the Office of Global Navigation at the intelligence agency, acknowledged in an interview that on the chart, "there's nothing shown that would be a hazard" at the crash site. But since the accident, Mr. Andreasen said, his office has examined commercially available images taken by a Landsat satellite in 1999, and at least one image indicates that an undersea mountain could rise to within 100 feet of the surface there. Analysts say variations in water color can sometimes indicate a land mass below. Mr. Andreasen said his agency had not normally used satellite imagery to update sea charts, though it recently began using the images to help pinpoint the boundaries of islands and other land masses. He and other officials said that the charting office's staff had shrunk in recent years, and that the Navy never asked it to focus on the area south of Guam, where it began basing submarines in 2002.
The tone of the Times' narrative here is one of government incompetence: The Navy is incompetent for not asking Mr. Andreasen to look at that area of the world. Mr. Andreasen is incompetent for not doing so without being asked. The Bush Administration is incompetent for allowing the mapping office to shrink. But even if any of this is true – and The Adventures of Chester takes issue with all of it – none of these things would have made any difference if there is a shortage in our satellite-based intelligence-gathering or mapping capabilities, the spending for which several Democratic Senators and The New York Times -- their proxy -- were so quick to condemn back in December.

14 Comments:

Blogger SMSgt Mac said...

Good Post. It will be interesting to see if the armchair admirals second-guess the commander's career into the dumpster. I read the article as covered by my local paper and towards the end it hints that if the charts were "old" the commander could be called (by the proverbial "some") imprudent for traveling at high speeds. My guess is that it was a route taken by submariners for years as a safe one to transit at high speeds.

The NYT writer carefully crafts his article to include "Mr. Andreasen said, his office has examined commercially available images taken by a Landsat satellite in 1999, and at least one image indicates that an undersea mountain could rise to within 100 feet of the surface there" without explaining why the need for a map update for that particular spot in the ocean wasn't investigated beforehand. I suspect the reason is that the images did not amount to sufficient evidence to prioritize and investigate without the a priori knowledge of an existing hazard, given the allowed budget vs. known needs. Please continue following this incident - there will be more to come

January 15, 2005 at 12:43 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Davis said...

If Mr. Andreasen could find it with commercial satellite pictures after the crash, presumably he could have found it before. What he needed was sufficient staff to interpret the images, not a spy satellite that might never be pointed to the middle of the ocean.

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